The Western Roman Empire is generally said to have fallen in 476 CE, which was in of itself part of a long gradual decline as the Empire fell for a wide variety of internal and external reasons which are beyond the scope of this article and indeed are still extensively debated by historians. The central Government broke down, barbarians tribes such as the Huns, the Vandals, and the Goths invaded and took over and many urban centers that grew under Roman rule withered on the vine as their people fled to the countryside and a fair bit of higher learning was lost in Western Europe. For the sake of curating this marked the end of the Classical Period period which lasted until about 1000 or so called The Dark Ages.
During this time warlords carved out new kingdoms, handing conquered lands out to their favored warriors as they went who'd tax peasants and used that money to buy Mail and helmets and Horses, gradually morphing into the first Knights. They also made alliances with the Catholic Church, which arose from the ashes of Rome offering its services in placating the peasants, rebuilding society and doing things that required book learning in exchange for their aid in spreading the faith, a say in the way things were run and various other privileges.
Starting around the early 700s, the relatively new Umayyad Caliphate had begun conquering Europe, seizing nearly all of Spain. While the other Mediterranean European countries were under the protection of the Byzantine Empire, the South of France was vulnerable and became the site of significant clashes between the local Frankish tribes and the invading Muslims. During this time period, Frankish statesman Charles Martel was able to rally the Franks at the battle of Tours and beat back the invasion; his grandson Charlemagne would succeed in uniting the remainder of Western Europe under the Carolingian Empire, the closest the West had ever been to a unified state since Rome. While the Empire didn't last, it laid the groundwork for the two future states of France and the Holy Roman Empire.
Around 793 the Vikings began to show up and would remain an active element for centuries to come. While most of these attacks were short yet violent raids for the sake of pillaging and taking slaves, eventually the Vikings conquered a sizable chunk of England and established the "Danelaw," ensuring a long-term presence that would last even after the English petty kingdoms ousted the Norse warlords. France faired somewhat better, as the French monarch was able to convince the invading vikings to settle down and own the province of Normandy in exchange for their fealty. This would have long-term consequences as said Normans ended up claiming the English crown for themselves, leading William the Conqueror to invade England in 1066 and claim it for himself; this typically marks the end of the Dark Ages and the beginning of the High Middle Ages, as the various European powers were finally starting to stabilize and more formal governance was being made. It's also the point where the iconic heavily cavalry in full armor became a thing, as stirrup made cavalry considerably more practical, while mail armor began to encompass more of the body than the mere "chain shirt" that had existed since Roman times.
- This is a western European thing. Byzantium, China, India, Persia and eventually the Islamic Caliphates were, on the whole, doing quite well at this time. After all, this was the era that played host to the meteoric rise of Islam as both a world religion and temporal superpower. In Europe, Byzantine Empire had it quite well under Justinian that strove to restore the old Empire, financing and patronising religious, cultural and scientific advancement of the state. It is under his rule that famous Hagia Sophia was constructed. However, most influential and lasting legacy of his was the unified and complex Codex of Laws, known as Corpus Iuris Civilis, that combined both older Roman Laws and Justinian's own innovations. While it would be lost and abandoned by the West after the Great Schism, it was revisited by Napoleon, who used it as the basis for the Napoleonic code of which modern day Laws are delivered from. Justinian was doing great until up to half of the entire population died in the plague outbreak named after him and Theodora's death by cancer pretty much broke the last great classical autocrat. After Byzantium and Persia broke each other, the Islamic empire came and sent them to their inevitable declines. The Caliphate though would go through a Golden Age that lasted until the Mongols, excepting the Sunni-Shia schism and the Abbasids overthrowing the Umayyads. There is also an often overlooked period called the Carolingian Renaissance which occurred from the 8th-9th century and saw flourishing in frankish intellectual elites in such areas as law, writing, literature, liturgical reforms and arts. China would emerge from a period of political instability (and China had a lot of that) be reunified by the Sui Dynasty and thrive under the Tang Dynasty, notably developing the Imperial Bureaucracy based on competitive examination. Meanwhile, Japan was coming into its own as a well-developed civilization with the Nara and Heian Periods following China's model.
- Long story short term "Dark Age" has become rather contentious in recent decades among historians and at the very least it has been judged that people from the Renaissance onward overestimated in how severe the fall was. Many prefer the far less loaded Early Medieval Period to describe this period of history.
- The real reason we call this period the “Dark Age” is due to the relative lack of European writings we have in comparison to the ages coming before and after. Between the high political instability and drop in literacy, the only people making books at this time were monks. That’s not to say Europe was a total intellectual vacuum; the University was invented in this time period, and would build a network of schools that would really come into prominence once the Renaissance hits.
- There are other periods of time labeled "Dark Ages" such as the Greek Dark Ages between the Late Bronze Age Collapse and the Classical Period. Basically whenever an advanced civilization regresses a decent bit due to general decline or some catastrophe. And like the previous point, we know almost nothing about what happened during these periods, especially so for the Bronze Age.
The appeal of the Dark Age
How do you like your medieval fantasy? Do you like it to be harsher, grittier and on the cruder side? Then the Dark Ages are a good place to mine for ideas. People in shattered isolated settlements where buildings are rough while a king theoretically reigns but the power lies in the hands of local nobles and knights. Viking raiders on longships searching for gold and thralls raiding who do battle with scruffy knights in dirty scale and mail who are at best but marginally more civilized than the pagan "barbarians" with whom they do battle. Both of which are more likely to preserve their deeds in song than with words written down in books. Isolated monasteries of monks copying down a few ancient texts that they can not read for future generations. You can even work in a bit of a post apocalyptic vibe with a Dark Age setting, where people build crude wooden fortresses and barn like halls exist alongside the remains of more impressive structures of stone from a now fallen empire. Civilization once stood here and it might do so again, but now is an age of turmoil and the sword.
Not to say that these guys did not have a creative side, this period is tied in with celtic spiral patterns and tapistries. In general the aesthetics of the time are more abstract than the classical era before it or the high middle ages and renaissance ahead of it.
Dark inspired Games, Factions and Settings
This is one of the most used settings in all fantasy. While usually taking a fair degree of artistic liberties, most fantasy authors use the aesthetics of feudalism in one way or another: poor peasants, luxurious (for the time) and corrupt nobility courts stabbing each other in the back, dirty and decrepit cities, barbarians pillaging the remnants of the old empires, a nebulous fight in the frontiers (usually based of the muslim or mongol invasions during the Middle Ages)... The Kingdom of Bretonnia in Warhammer FB is clearly inspired in a late version of the Middle Ages' Kingdom of France and/or England, whereas the Empire is closer to Early Modern Age's Holy Roman Empire. The human kingdoms in The Lord of The Rings also follow a similar aesthetic, although much less grounded in reality and more in fantasy.
|Historical Time Periods|
|Premodern:||Stone Age - Bronze Age - Classical Period - Dark Age - High Middle Ages - Renaissance|
|Modern:||Age of Enlightenment - Industrial Revolution - The World Wars - The Cold War - Post-Cold War|